FOR SOCIAL REASONS For humans, food does more than merely nourish. It socializes--and civilizes--us as well
If you ever find yourself dining with a family in the South African kingdom of Lesotho, you'd better have a taste for eyeballs--that is, if you're the male head of a household. Tradition requires the host to honor your family in a truly special way: with the cooked head of a sheep. Everyone will be served the feast, but only you will be presented with the eyes.
A sheep's head is a big deal in Lesotho, where most folks don't often get to enjoy meat. When they do, they like it rich and fatty, and they eat it right down to the offal. Presenting the crowning part of so prized a meal to a guest is no small gesture.
For human beings, eating has never been a simple matter. To a frog snagging a fly or a pelican nabbing a fish, food is fuel and nothing more. To a human, the ritual of eating--the act of pulling up and tucking in, of passing around and helping oneself--is one of the most primal of shared activities. We eat together when we celebrate, and we eat together when we grieve; we eat together when a loved one is preparing to leave, and we eat together when the loved one returns. We solve our problems over the family dinner table, conduct our business over the executive lunch table, entertain guests over cake and cookies at the coffee table.
"Interaction over food is the single most important feature of socializing," says Sidney Mintz, professor of anthropology at Johns Hopkins University. "The food becomes the carriage that conveys feelings back and forth."
It's not just families that define themselves through foods. Whole cultures do so too. Muslims eat halal and Jews eat kosher and Roman Catholics forgo meat on Fridays. Moroccans don't eat what Swedes eat, who don't eat what the Japanese eat, who don't eat what Croatians eat. When families leave their home countries and settle elsewhere, the cultural feathering they bring with them--language, dress, music--is often shed within a generation. But the foods linger. "The last part of a culture that gets lost are the food ways," says Barrett Brenton, nutritional anthropologist at St. John's University in New York City. "We find comfort in our cuisines."
Although that has long been the way food works, it is becoming less so--at least in the developed world, where scarcity has been replaced by overabundance and undernourishment by obesity. Increasingly, the connection between eating and ritual is becoming unhinged. We turn too much to food for solace and celebration, and we do it with less and less reference to traditions or even formal mealtimes--to the detriment of our figure and our health.